It’s been another rollercoaster week in British politics. Like democrats across the country, regardless of whether they are Leave or Remain, I was pleased and energised by Tuesday’s unanimous decision by the Supreme Court, ruling that the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. Without any doubts, the prorogation was a cynical and opportunist act of hubris, with a view to crashing us out of the EU without a deal – running down industry, opening up our NHS and other public services to more privatisation, and shredding environmental protections, rights at work and consumer standards – without the courage to stand at the dispatch box and defend his position. No Government should have the ability to shut down Parliament in order to avoid scrutiny and pursue a damaging and irreversible election unchallenged. That the Yellowhammer papers on the Government’s assessment of the impact of a No Deal Brexit were released when there was no opportunity to challenge the Government on their content is a prime example of the Prime Minister’s intentions.
One of the troubling consequences of the prorogation was that dozens of Bills still on the books before prorogation – including the Domestic Abuse Bill – would have been dropped pushing their progress back by years, if not indefinitely. The verdict by the Supreme Court – which effectively meant that the prorogation never happened, with the Speaker instructing Parliament to resume on Wednesday – has meant that the tireless efforts of many Members to bring improvements to our country across a whole plethora of areas have no longer fallen foul of the Prime Minister’s illegal games. It is good to be back to business.
It did feel good to be back in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Sadly however, the positive energy did not last long. Wednesday’s debate was, without doubt, one of the worst I have ever experienced. From the start, the mood and tensions in the House was palpable. By the end, the shouting on all sides, but particularly the Prime Minister’s downward trajectory into truly offensive populism – manipulatively suggesting we honour my friend Jo Cox’s memory through Brexit, and dismissing articulate concerns from women Labour MPs about dangerous use of language as “humbug”- was just too offensive for words.
We simply have to diffuse abuse in political discourse, on all sides. We can passionately disagree, but we really need to dehumanise and threaten our opponents. Each of us, myself included, needs to check ourselves – every tweet, every Facebook comment, every loaded joke in the pub – to ask if we’re getting our point across without adding to the tensions and poisons that are dangerously toxifying British politics once more. On Thursday morning, Bercow used the Speaker’s chair to call for calm after “an atmosphere in the chamber worse than any I’ve known in my 22 years”. He was right to do so. I was verbally abused quite aggressively in a local supermarket this month (thank you to the uniformed NHS nurse who stepped in to my defence!) and this is a daily reality for many MPs and councillors, with women in public life suffering a disproportionate volume and severity of abuse. We have to make politics safe again, or we will deter good people from being involved. We as politicians have to show leadership on this. After Jo’s murder, I remember reading an article that argued words to the effect that “if you put enough poison into a system, eventually someone will get sick”. I genuinely fear something shocking may happen again, whether to a political activist or representative, or a member of the public. Just yesterday a Birmingham MP’s constituency office had to have a threatening and abusive man arrested. No MP’s staff should have to feel afraid to go to work.
Regardless of how we eventually break the Brexit deadlock – through a Final Say referendum, a National Unity Government, or General Election – it is the responsibility of each of us, whether an MP, journalist or simply member of the community, to count to ten when enraged and try our best to dial it down not heat it up when tensions rise, and to choose our language carefully. I may not agree with the Tories on most aspects of policy. I can’t agree with those who espouse the benefits of No Deal, or indeed with those who think we should simply revoke Article 50 without any respect at all for those who voted for it. But we must remember two things. Firstly, that good politicians persuade people to their point of view. So little of this has happened recently whilst people shout from the extremes instead. Secondly, that we are all human, and should treat one another with a baseline of dignity and respect.
When I think of Greater Manchester communities, I think of the way we all came together, albeit in shock and grief, in the wake of the Arena terror attack, with such resilience, unity and Mancunian good humour. We need to remember and recapture that spirit of stoic accord. We are entitled to our views and we are lucky to be free to express them. However, let’s just remember Jo’s own words, “we have more in common than that which divides us.” As Chair of Christians on the Left, I have for a long time fronted their campaign to #DisagreeWell, inside Labour and out. At Party Conference we update this to #WeAre, asking us to find common ground, and move away from us and them. I know that politics traditionally thrives on dividing lines – but communities do not thrive on division. It is time to try harder to come together.